DVD set reveals comic genius of Max Linder

Written By By BILL STAMETS For Sun-Times Media Posted: 06/10/2014, 05:50pm

Max Linder (1882-1925) was the first international star of screen comedy, but in the United States, this French comic was surpassed by his successors — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Now silent-era fans can see on DVD four works Linder made during his two Hollywood stints between 1916 and 1922.

Kino Classics offers “The Max Linder Collection,” four complete comedies restored by the Lobster Films archives in Paris, where Linder once reigned as “the king of the cinematographe.” Prior releases selected early shorts and clips from his features: the 2003 DVD “Laugh with Max Linder” and the 1995 VHS tape “The Comedy of Max Linder.”

Born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle, the stage actor chose the screen name “Max Linder.” His self-fashioned character was “the eccentric if bourgeois dandy prone to domestic and social conundrums and mishaps,” writes University of Chicago film scholar Jennifer Wild. Before WWI, his shorts were the main export of the Pathe Freres company. Imitators appeared in Japan and Russia, where “the craze grew into madness,” reports Yuri Tsivian, another U. of C. professor.

Marital mayhem ensues in Linder’s “Be My Wife” (1921), “Seven Years Bad Luck” (1921) and “Max Wants a Divorce” (1917), which the actor-directer-writer made at the Essanay Studios in Chicago. The Chicago press mobbed his departure. Moving Picture World’s correspondent reported: “Along with Max went his forty-six trunks of sartorial embellishments — with eight more containing American-tailored designs, which caught the comedian’s fancy. It required a private baggage car to carry Max’s clothes, his wooden-legged war dog, ‘Wah,’ and motor car.”

On a 1923 visit to Linder’s home in Paris, a writer from the London magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer noted: ”The first thing that caught my eye was a large and most lifelike portrait of Charles Chaplin with the following words written across the bottom: “To the one and Only Max, `The Professor,’ from his disciple. Charles Chaplin.”

The year before, during his second visit to Los Angeles, the limber mustachioed Linder played “Dart-in-Again” in “The Three Must-Get-Theres” (1922), a pun-packed parody of “The Three Musketeers” by Douglas Fairbanks.

If the character arcs for this slapstick sophisticate are slight, his visual gags delight. Max does great bits with animals, like sailing to France on a horse outfitted with sails. Pairs of shoes in close-up enact tiny dramas and diversions in several films.

Linder’s offscreen depression lead to his suicide with his wife, Helene, after they attended a staging of “Quo Vadis,” where the characters open their veins. The comic star did likewise after taking Veronal and morphine. One obit would tag him “the French Charlie Chaplin.”

“The Max Linder Collection” is a more mirthful legacy from an artist who imagined a more lively medium for encountering ‘picturegoers’: “One day there will be a cinematic theater and the screen will have vanished. On stage, thanks to sophisticated projections, characters in relief will ‘act’ and will be heard talking. I believe in the future of a mixed cinema-theater.”

For now, there’s DVD.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and critic.

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